In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, twice was able to cheat death. But as his punishment he was sentenced for eternity to roll a large boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down the hill as he reached the top. Fighting off those who continue to insist on spreading fake news among friends and family on social media and via email seems downright Sisyphean.
I’m not talking about the spread of fake news on broadcast media, though that continues to abound at a damaging pace. I’m talking about the memes and emails and assorted bric-a-brac littering our feeds and inboxes with regularity. The Sisyphean aspect is that often when it seems like the fakeness of an item has been beaten down, it thrusts its way back.
I won’t repeat the details of the email I just received from an old friend who was forwarding it on from someone who likely had already sent it on to dozens of others. Suffice it to say, it included references to a former presidential candidate, a billionaire philanthropist, and a handful of other regular victims of malicious fakery. What’s more, it’s almost word for word the same text that made the rounds about a year ago that was decidedly debunked by a Reuters Fact Check team.
The email sender regularly forwards emails he receives that he finds funny or interesting or provocative. He never includes a note. Just forwarded stuff that occasionally is distasteful or just an annoying spread of fake facts. If he posted it to social media, the site might flag it. When it’s spread as email, it’s up to the recipients to decide first whether to read it, second whether to believe it, third whether to check it out, and finally whether to call him on the bunk he is spreading with abandon. It’s the last of these steps I’m concerned with here. What’s the best response, if any, after receiving emails such as these?
It would take the least amount of work to simply ignore the message. Granted even if I respond by calling out the fakery, it’s unclear if that would stop him from continuing to spread it around. But doing nothing in response seems wrong. Taking the stance that my one email can’t fix the larger problem is like deciding to throw your hands up at making any small effort to do the right thing when you know your actions are unlikely to provide an immediate fix.
Does it really take that much time to call people on their spreading of fake news? After receiving the email, it took less than a minute to copy and paste it into an internet search and find the Reuters article debunking it. It took even less time than to respond with a link to the article and the sentence: “What you sent is factually incorrect.”
In spite of it feeling like that fabricated boulder is going to come rolling right back at me at some point, the right thing is to embrace the concept of doing the right thing even when it feels Sisyphean to do so.
And to my emailing friend: Knock it off. That goes for my readers’ fake-news-spreading friends too. Just tell them to knock it off.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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